RANDOM REVIEW: Sprint Overdrive / Clear Spot 4G+

Overdrive next to a deck of playing cards
Well, as 'standard' a deck as I could find anyway...

UPDATE: My Overdrive bit the dust almost a year after this review was written, read the update here.

Smartphones may be smart and all, but in my opinion there is no substitute for having an actual computer when I need to do things on the Web.  In addition to being a huge nerd, I have two websites to take care of (www.firststormmanga.com and this one) and so a smartphone doesn’t always cut it.  I like to have a full-sized keyboard and screen for when things need to Get Done.

Back when I was with T-Mobile, I used the built-in tethering that came included on my T-Mobile Dash, which ran Windows Mobile.  I thought it was odd that it wasn’t disabled, but once I started to use it, I found out why.  Tethering on 2G was dirt slow. It did work, though, and I could check my e-mail and do some very light browsing even while in the technological black hole that is my hometown of Odem, Texas.

I eventually ended up bidding T-Mobile and Windows Mobile a not-so-fond farewell and signed on with Sprint, getting a spiffy new Samsung Moment in the process.  I found an app to tether with, but it was limited and I wanted a less hacker-y solution.  A few months later, I looked into what Sprint had to offer and had two options: I could get a USB stick for my laptop for free or an Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot for fifty dollars, both coming with the usual 2-year contract yadda yadda.  FYI, Clear Wireless also sells this device as the Clear Spot 4G+ but its ‘official’ name is the Sierra Wireless AirCard W801.

I went with the Overdrive because I was starting to go to conventions, and my experience with hotel Wi-Fi up to that point was that it was either: slow because of all the convention attendees, not there at all, or really expensive.  Fifty dollars didn’t seem like too high a price to pay for the convenience of having WiFi and the attached data plan was going to cost the same either way.  I thought it would be handy to have a connection that I could share when on the road.

The Overdrive isn’t too big, it is just a little bit wider than a standard deck of playing cards (see pic above).  There isn’t much to it: on its top are a display and the power button.  The front has a micro-USB charge port and a micro-SD card reader.  The back has a switch for enabling or muting the sound, and that’s it.  I was also hoping for a little blinking red light on top, but oh well.

Holding down the power button for a few seconds starts up the Overdrive.  After taking about a minute to boot, it attempts to connect to a network.  If I may digress for a moment: I have griped about boot times in portable devices in the past, but I’m just going to have to let it slide from here on out, because nearly every portable device short of a Nintendo DS is going to take some time to boot.  Its just something I’m going to have to live with from here on out.  Oh well.

Once it has connected to a network, the Overdrive’s display will show its SSID and WiFi password.  Once you connect to it using a computer and type ‘overdrive’ into a browser you will be taken to the device’s setup page.  There you can specify an admin password, select a WiFi security type and change the Overdrive’s SSID and password to something more memorable.  Once you have that done you are ready to go, the Overdrive’s ID and password is displayed on its screen and up to five Wi-Fi devices can be connected to it at a time.

Speedtest.net results
Broadband on the road, baby!

The Overdrive’s 4G connection works great. I have seen it go as high as six megabits/sec with a good signal, the results at right were with a 60% signal according to the Overdrive’s setup page.  While that is peanuts compared to a cable connection, for a portable connection it is great.  The Overdrive has the ability to fallback to a 3G connection if 4G is not available.  It does get a little squirrely on occasion, but not any more so than any other wireless device I’ve owned.

I have had my Overdrive for about six months so far, and I have been very happy with it.  I do have one complaint that I will address in a few paragraphs, though.  As Odem does not have 4G right now (and to be frank, I’m not holding my breath) the Overdrive’s ability to use 3G is a life-saver when visiting my parents.  I have used it at a few Texas conventions and for a few days in Los Angeles, and it has exceeded my expectations.

You can leave the Overdrive’s settings as is or use the admin password to adjust its settings.  Among other things, you can choose to not display the WiFi password on the screen, or even set the WiFi to auto-disable when it is plugged into your computer’s USB port if you don’t feel like sharing.  The Overdrive’s webpage also shows the actual signal strength as a percentage, which comes in handy when I am looking for a ‘sweet spot’ to place it.

As with many wireless devices, the fly in the Overdrive’s ointment is its battery life.  At about three hours, it isn’t terrible, but it is short enough that it will run out of power before most laptops.  It can be charged via a computer using the included USB cable, but I highly recommend packing the charger in your laptop bag.

On a technical level, the Overdrive works great: you push the button, it connects to the cellular network, and then you and up to four friends can have Internet just about anywhere you go.  While the battery life could be better, it isn’t bad enough to be a deal-breaker, but it is something to be aware of.  Another negative is that the service does not come cheap.  Clear and Sprint are currently charging about sixty dollars a month for the service which consists of unlimited 4G and 5GB of 3G data.  If you don’t mind paying for the convenience, though, you might never find yourself “off the grid” again thanks to the Overdrive!

NOTE: The author received no compensation for this review.

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